Sweat pooled in Nora’s eyes and dripped down the inside of her thighs like it always did when she ran with Bailey. Ahead, a wedding dress billowed across a patch of grass between the running path and the river.
“Look,” Nora panted. “A wedding.”
The witnesses bent and rose as if attempting to grasp the dress floating just out of reach. The white dress ballooned and swelled with the lust of a virgin for a day. Sunlight cast down around it, and bright grass lapped at the edges of its crisp whiteness.
Bailey shielded her eyes. “Huh.”
When they got closer, the bride became a sanitation worker unfurling a white garbage bag toward other sanitation workers. Nora blinked. She wanted back what she’d seen, its vivid truth now gone, as if her perception couldn’t be trusted.
“I can’t believe we thought that was a wedding!” Nora said.
“I know, right?”
Bailey’s tone was tactful. She hadn’t believed it after all. Nora almost said, ‘Yeah, I didn’t really think it was a wedding’ just to see if Bailey would admit that she hadn’t either. She let the moment pass. She didn’t want to think about why Bailey had agreed so readily. Why couldn’t she just be honest about something so insignificant?
Nora met Bailey last year while they were dropping off their sons on the first day of kindergarten. Nora had plastered on the benign smile she reserved for other parents. She stood with two women debating the best type of lunch boxes for their children, and she couldn’t think of a single thing to say. She was about to find an excuse to walk away when Bailey joined them. There was something playful about Bailey that suggested to Nora a glimmer of the person she might be outside the schoolyard. When Bailey introduced herself, a smile tugged at the edges of her lips as if only for Nora.
When the women drifted off to respond to requests from their children, Nora spoke. “But really, a paper bag will suffice, no?”
Bailey laughed. “Obviously.”
She and Bailey went for coffee, which turned into lunch as they talked about everything from books they loved to Nora’s marriage and Bailey’s divorce, and their occasional bouts of mother rage. They agreed lunch box conversations were off the table, which became their code for any conversation involving brownie recipes, kid crafts, or what to put in the Crock-Pot.
Bailey sped up and her sports bra shifted so that the eyes of the snake tattoo on her shoulder blade peeked out. A cramp needled Nora’s side as she fought to keep up.
“I saw Mr. D working out at the rec center the other night when I brought the kids to swimming,” Nora said.
Mr. D was Greg Donnelly, their sons’ very attractive, very divorced soccer coach and a fellow first-grade parent. He was also the man that Nora was sure Bailey should be dating instead of Bailey’s actual boyfriend, Peter.
Peter was an older man, like fifty old. Real middle age, not the age she and Bailey were approaching, which Nora preferred to believe wasn’t middle-aged yet. Peter’s age, though, wasn’t the actual issue. It was that Bailey was always telling Nora how Peter never planned anything fun for them, went to bed at 8 p.m. most nights, and sometimes couldn’t get it up.
“He asked me to see a movie last week,” Bailey said. Her limbs moved with determination.
“Whoa, wait! Mr. D?” Nora paused, put her hands on her knees, then caught up to her. “Why did you not tell me that?”
Bailey hadn’t exactly lied, but she hadn’t confided in Nora either. Nora would have told Bailey right away.
“I just did!”
“Okay fine. I knew he liked you.”
“He doesn’t like me. We went as friends.”
Nora doubted any man would ask Bailey to a movie just to be friendly, considering her green eyes, her chin-length dark waves, and her body trimmed to only what was necessary.
“You do want him.”
Bailey smiled. “A little.”
Nora made a sound between a shriek and a wheeze. “Tell me everything!”
“There’s nothing to tell. We just watched the movie.”
“But did your hands brush in the popcorn? Was there a lingering look at the end of the night when you got out of his car?”
Bailey laughed. “We took separate cars.”
“Did you tell Peter?”
Bailey shook her head.
“I know I’ve said it a million times, but I’m going to say it again. You’re just playing it safe with Peter.”
Bailey sighed. “You’re absolutely right. It’s better than being alone.”
This was where they always ended up when it came to this conversation.
“Is it better? And besides, you wouldn’t be alone. You’d be blowing Mr. D’s hot whistle.”
Bailey laughed again. “Nora, you’re so funny.”
Although Nora didn’t think she was especially funny, she loved it when Bailey said so.
Nora looked ahead to the spot where the trail curved out of view and they always turned around. Bailey kicked up her legs as they crossed under the bridge where the homeless encampment, complete with dogs and radios, seemed to expand weekly. One of the guys, his face as weathered as his green camping chair, called out, as he always did, “You girls get to the finish line yet?”
Bailey called back, as she always did, “No, sir.”
After the run, they lay on their backs. On the grass between the river and the parking lot, they breathed hard through half-hearted crunches. Across the river, a Ferris wheel towered next to a roller coaster, the motionless carts taut and ready.
Nora stretched out her legs and glanced at Bailey. “New shorts?”
Bailey usually wore plain black shorts, but Nora noticed these had a camo pattern and a different cut.
“Not really.” Bailey lifted her shirt a little, letting the breeze cool her stomach.
Nora rolled to face Bailey and propped her head on her hand. “We should go out for drinks before the luau with Mr. D.”
The luau was their big school fundraiser. Nora had groaned inwardly after reading each email from the PTA president, the brightly-worded requests for volunteers growing more threatening as the event date came closer. Though she knew these requests were sent out to everyone, Nora felt targeted as one of the stay-at-home moms who surely had the time. Defiance kept her from volunteering to join the decorating committee, run the photo booth, or plan the auction. Guilt had started to creep in until Bailey made her feel better by agreeing that Nora didn’t have to step up just because she was home. Then Bailey volunteered to make the centerpieces for the tables, and Nora began to suspect that Bailey cared more about being accepted than Nora would’ve liked.
“We totally should.” Bailey got up and brushed off her shorts, which Nora was sure were new.
“Awesome.” Nora stood too, pulling her underwear from where it had gotten wedged. “Most importantly, what are you wearing?”
Bailey grinned. “A grass skirt and bikini top, baby.”
Nora shimmied her shoulders. “I love it. You seriously would?”
“Sure, why not?”
“I didn’t think you’d want to stand out like that at a school thing.”
Bailey bounced on her toes, like they were getting ready to start their run all over again. “Oh, I’m not worried about that.”
Nora clapped her hands. Maybe she’d been wrong. She hoped she had been. “Let’s do it together! I can’t wait.”
Later that night, after the kids were in bed, Nora sat at the kitchen island with Rick and sent a group text to Bailey, Rick, and Mr. D.
A luau isn’t complete without tequila shots first at Billy’s Tavern. Let’s all meet there?
Mr. D replied first. Sounds great.
Rick, who’d been absorbed in Facebook, asked Nora without looking up, “Why are you texting me?”
Nora grinned at her phone and squealed as she started a private text to Bailey about how sexy Mr. D would think she looked.
“Girl stuff,” she told him.
Bailey and Nora texted back-and-forth about Mr. D. Nora felt like she was in high school again, talking on the phone with her best friend about a boy. It wasn’t even about the boy so much as the way such conversations made her feel like she and a friend were in their own impenetrable world.
Nora wrote: you have to write back too so he knows you’re coming.
So Bailey texted the group: Be there or be square.
Nora wished she could revise Bailey’s answer with something like: so excited to hang again, followed maybe by a winking emoji. She stood behind Rick and wrapped her arms around him, lowering his phone to the counter before kissing his neck, feeling an often dormant need flow through her.
He sighed with pleasure. “On a school night?”
Nora answered by gliding her hands under his t-shirt.
The night of the luau, Nora took a picture of herself in her grass skirt and red bikini top and sent it to Bailey. Nora thought she looked all right for a mom of two kids, even if her judgment was maybe skewed by the glass of wine she’d had while getting ready.
Bailey wrote back: Ha ha. You look AMAZING.
But she didn’t send a picture of herself.
Nora went to the backyard where Rick was tossing a ball with Joseph and their younger daughter Zoe.
Rick glanced over at her. “Isn’t it going to get cold later?”
Nora sighed. “The luau’s inside. You can drop me at the entrance.”
Rick winked, and Nora felt he’d redeemed his initial question—he would definitely still take her to an upstairs bathroom if she showed up to a party in a bikini and not get her to wear a coat.
“Bailey’s going to wear a bikini too. I sent her a selfie but she didn’t send one back. Do you think that’s weird?”
Rick caught the ball and didn’t answer. She couldn’t tell if he heard her. Sometimes, he’d hear but not answer because he felt the question was more or less rhetorical.
At Billy’s Tavern, Mr. D, Greg, was already seated on their enclosed patio. Nora and Rick slid across from him. Nora felt exposed sitting half naked in a restaurant, but she kept her shoulders back, determined to radiate confidence. Nora would feel better when Bailey got there. They would be exposing themselves together, a united front of indifference.
A waitress with pink hair came by and asked, “Waiting on a fourth?”
Nora glanced toward Bailey’s empty chair. Rick and Mr. D ordered tequila flights and nachos. They chatted freely about baseball and the housing market. Nora was only half-listening. She checked her phone every few seconds, then glanced toward the entrance and exit for Bailey’s arrival. Nora was pissed that Bailey was late but refused to text her and ask her where she was.
She understood that she was angrier than the situation called for, yet she couldn’t talk herself down. She gritted her teeth and stared at the door. Rick touched her hand in that way he did when he knew she wasn’t really there and wanted to bring her back.
Nora twirled the umbrella in her margarita and tried to stop herself from wondering where Bailey was and whether she’d show up. Nora had wanted this to be the first of many double dates. She could picture Bailey and Mr. D across from her and Rick: Bailey’s tanned, graceful arm flung around Mr. D’s shoulder.
“Tell me, Mr. D, I mean, Greg.”
Nora wanted to ask what he thought of Bailey. Tell him that Bailey wanted to have his children. That would show her.
Instead, she asked, “Are you dating anyone?”
“Nope, no one at the moment,” Mr. D said.
Rick glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “So, Greg, any travel plans for the summer?”
“No one? But I mean, look at you,” Nora said.
Rick squeezed her knee. “We’re heading to Yellowstone.”
But she pressed on, “Has there been anyone since the divorce?”
Mr. D shrugged. “Here and there.”
“So,” Rick said. “Our boys have been having a great season, huh? Joseph loves playing goalie.”
Nora licked the salt off her lips and ate the last of the nachos she’d been saving for Bailey. “These nachos are awful.”
Rick jiggled Nora’s knee now. “Hey. Do you want to go soon?”
Nora sucked down the rest of her margarita. When the waitress brought the check, she glanced down at Nora’s bare stomach, and Nora’s back stiffened. What right did she have to judge Nora’s choices?
“It’s for the children,” Nora explained. “A school fundraiser.”
The waitress gave Nora a look: she couldn’t care what she chose to wear that night or ever.
“Hey,” Nora said to her. “If you play your cards right, maybe one day you’ll get to wear a bikini at a restaurant too, and suck in the little pouch you’ll get from having babies.”
Rick pushed his chair back and stood. “All right, let’s go.”
Rick drove the mile to the school with Nora mute in the passenger seat and pulled in front, where it was strange to be at night.
“Nora?” Rick asked.
“I’m not cold. You can park.”
She was hot all over from being mad at Bailey and from embarrassment. Had she really said ‘but look at you’ to her son’s soccer coach?
The cafeteria looked too large with its long tables removed, and parents clustered in the middle of the room as though avoiding its dark corners. The room was transformed into a giddy PTA mom’s vision of an indoor luau. They walked past an inflatable kiddie pool and cocktail tables covered with plastic grass tablecloths. Bailey’s intricate palm trees topped each one like miniature stabs of betrayal. Nora took three of the leis splayed on a table and draped one around her neck, then did the same for Rick and Mr. D.
The counter where the kids got their milk had been turned into a bar. Rick attempted to joke with glum young bartenders, who were clearly annoyed at serving parents who didn’t get out much. A DJ spun 80s music as if that was all people their age could want to hear.
Nora sipped the signature drink of the night from a plastic pineapple, and sugar pleasantly coated her teeth. The coconut-y and alcohol-y mix made her feel like a kid playing adult. She swayed as she sipped, the lei brushing her navel.
Bailey walked in, followed by Peter. Nora coughed and resisted the urge to run over to her and ask what had happened. Nora expected Bailey to approach her first and explain why she’d abandoned their whole plan without even a text. Peter removed Bailey’s coat, revealing her white backless minidress, the snake’s coiled body fully unveiled. Nora curled her arm over her stomach, barely registering Rick’s hand on her shoulder as Bailey stopped to talk to a group of “lunch box enthusiasts” in their tasteful dresses. Nora tried not to glare at her, though she couldn’t tell if Bailey had even seen her yet. Rick continued chatting with Mr. D as if Nora wasn’t there.
When Bailey finally came over with Peter behind her, she said, “Hey! Rick, you remember Peter?”
Rick shook Peter’s hand as acid curdled Nora’s throat. Was Bailey really going to keep up this act? Nora crossed her arms over her bikini top. If Bailey had flown in with an excuse, any excuse—a flat tire, a late babysitter, even a hair emergency, Nora would’ve chosen to believe her. She would’ve forgiven her on the spot.
Mr. D shook Peter’s hand next. Nora dimly registered the extra firmness in Mr. D’s grip. If she wasn’t so worked up, this would’ve made her gleeful.
Bailey pointed at their pineapples. “What are you guys drinking?”
Nora dug her fingers into the grooves of the pineapple as if not wanting to lose her hold on anything else. The last sip she’d taken lingered in her mouth like cough medicine.
Nora shrugged, as coldly as she dared.
Bailey touched one of Nora’s bikini straps. “You look gorgeous, by the way.”
Nora wanted to snap back that she felt ridiculous actually; they were supposed to be dressed like this together. She didn’t call her out, though. The deceptions, though trivial, mattered to Nora in a way that made her ashamed of how much she cared.
“Let’s dance.” Nora grabbed Rick’s hand, and they joined the few couples and circle of moms who were half-heartedly dancing.
Nora smiled at acquaintances who looked her over politely. Their expressions fell just short of the disapproval that Nora was sure they felt. Bailey stood by the cupcake table, nodding at Mr. D as she sipped a glass of white wine. She tilted her head toward him, her gaze fixed as though he was saying something profound and wonderful. Where was Peter? Nora suddenly felt sorry for the guy. She commiserated with him; he was another victim of the cryptic side of Bailey that she couldn’t pin down.
Rick touched her hip, and Nora realized he’d stopped dancing.
“Want anything?” he asked. “I’m going to get another drink.”
But she wasn’t okay. Nora had always felt like an outcast, and tonight, those feelings had risen to the surface, bothering her in a way she usually refused to acknowledge. She didn’t even have Bailey anymore, if she’d ever had her at all. Instead of following Rick to the bar, she strode toward Bailey and Mr. D. She felt like she had to do or say something. As she brushed past them, she shot Bailey a disdainful look. Bailey’s face pinched with hurt, and she seemed to really notice Nora for the first time. Finally, she’d gotten a reaction. It was only temporarily soothing.
In the bathroom, Nora sat on the toilet and dropped her head into her hands as she peed. After she was done, she stayed put, leaving her bikini bottoms around her knees. Outside the stall, women came and went, their familiar voices somehow incomprehensible. She wanted their words to make sense. She wanted to speak their language effortlessly, or she wanted their language to be different. She sat until they were gone, and she was alone again. Nora recognized the absurdity of sitting in the bathroom, hoping her friend would come talk to her like they were in middle school. She couldn’t go back out there.
Then, red-polished toenails peeked under the door of the stall.
“Nora?” Bailey asked.
“Are you okay?”
Nora fingered the grass on her skirt, then pulled up her bikini bottoms. “I’m not really peeing anymore.”
“So, what’s up?”
Nora swung the door open. “Nothing.”
She walked over to the low sink and pumped the soap dispenser, its emptiness making Nora vaguely concerned for her children. She bent and held her hands under the water, sensing Bailey behind her and knowing that if she looked up she’d see their reflections together in the mirror. Nora turned off the faucet and faced her.
Bailey looked Nora over. “Let me fix you.”
Nora turned and lifted her hair. Bailey’s cool fingers grazed her neck as she untied Nora’s bikini top. She felt the ties slacken before Bailey drew them back up and knotted them in a bow.
“There,” she whispered.
Bailey’s breath made the hairs on her neck stand up as her nails moved across Nora’s shoulder blades. Nora turned around slowly.
“Why didn’t you wear the bikini?” Nora asked. “You said you would.” It sounded silly as she heard her children’s voices in her head: But mommy, you said you would. But Bailey had said she would. And she’d said she would show up for drinks. Nora needed to know finally why she said things she didn’t mean, and maybe meant things she didn’t say.
Bailey crossed her arms. “I changed my mind.”
“So, what? Was it a joke? I just want to understand you, Bailey.”
“What’s there to understand? I’m not hiding anything.”
“Then why does it feel that way?” Nora asked.
Bailey arched her back. “I don’t have to do things your way and I don’t have to tell you everything, Nora.”
“Of course, you don’t. I just meant that it would be okay to lay it all out there. That’s the kind of friendship we have, right?”
Bailey stayed quiet longer than Nora would’ve liked. Then she said, “Right.”
Nora followed Bailey out, the eyes of the snake clear jewels under the fluorescent bathroom lights.
Rick waved her over from where he was standing by the wine pull, and when Nora reached him, he asked, “Everything good?”
“Yeah, you? Having fun?”
“I put a bid on the adventure camp for Joseph. What do you think?”
Nora nodded absently. Over by the bar, Peter and Mr. D talked with their heads close, best of friends. Had she misunderstood the import of the movie invitation? Or had she understood the import, but not the implications?
Rick studied Nora’s face for a moment. “Do you want to go look for her?”
Nora took off. She checked the bathroom, then the school lobby. The front doors were open, and parents smoked outside in groups. Nora found Bailey alone in the community garden and stood across from her.
“What are you doing out here?” Nora rubbed her arms.
“Just getting air.”
“I saw Mr. D talking to Peter.”
“Really?” Bailey asked. But she didn’t sound interested.
Then Bailey moved closer, and Nora backed into the fence. A post dug into her bare back. Her heels sunk into the dirt. It was impossible to believe that they were in the same place where their kids dug for worms and planted seeds. Bailey’s breath had the floral scent of wine.
“You’re cold.” Bailey pressed her hands against the goosebumps racing up Nora’s arms.
Nora felt the heat radiating from Bailey’s palms as sweat trickled between Nora’s breasts. Bailey searched Nora’s eyes and held her gaze. Then she fingered the ends of Nora’s hair and let her thumb linger on Nora’s cheek.
Nora felt a jolt go through her. She breathed out. “Bailey. You never told me.”
Bailey’s arms fell to her sides. “I wanted to. I really did. But it’s never been easy for me. The first time I kissed a girl was during a dumb spin the bottle game in seventh grade. Me and Tammy Green.”
Nora saw the ache in Bailey’s eyes as she spoke.
“I think she liked it too. Only later, she told everyone that I was so gross, and middle school was a nightmare after that. Girls whispered about me in the halls. I hated being the topic of gossip and it just seemed easier not to be. In high school, I started sleeping around with guys and that got me talked about in a different way, but at least I had friends again.”
“Like the PTA moms now?”
“They’re not my friends. You know that. You are. You’re the one person I feel like I can be myself with.” She paused. “Or, at least more of myself. Because, Nora, you’re always yourself.”
“I want to hide sometimes too, Bailey.”
“But you don’t.” Bailey brought her hands to Nora’s waist.
A car went by and its headlights swept over their faces. Nora wanted to lace her hands at Bailey’s lower back and feel Bailey’s skin on hers, the touch of her lips. She wanted to close the rest of the distance between them. But she knew this wasn’t fair, that what they wanted from each other was too different.
Bailey stepped back. “I get it.”
She turned in a flash of white, there and then gone. Nora wrapped her arms around herself for the warmth she couldn’t find and stared at the pool of artificial light from a street lamp. She hadn’t thought through where the truth would leave them. She felt suddenly desperate not to lose her friend.
Nora weaved through the smokers and raced back inside to find Bailey. She and Peter were dancing to a slow song, Bailey’s body stubbornly pressed against his. Nora tapped her shoulder blade, wanting to somehow pull her from Peter. She’d never wanted Bailey to settle, even if she hadn’t understood exactly why she was doing it. Bailey turned and blinked, then looked somewhere past Nora.
“Don’t you just love this song?” she gushed.
Bailey laid her chin on Peter’s shoulder. Nora decided not to interrupt them again. She needed to accept what Bailey had already given of herself and have it be enough. Nora found Rick and told him that she was ready to go.
Rick kept his arm around her shoulders as they walked out. When they’d reached the exit, Nora stopped. She felt Bailey’s eyes on her back. When she turned, though, Bailey’s eyes were closed, a slight smile on her face. Though Bailey couldn’t see her, Nora smiled back.